The reason jerky even came about was to solve a problem of keeping a protein source edible for long periods of time when food was not available. Dehydrating meat removes moisture so that bacterial or fungal enzymes cannot react with the meat which in turn preserves it from spoiling and becoming good to eat for a longer period of time.
What started as a Native American process of preserving meat for necessity has evolved into great tasting snack food.
How Long Does Beef Jerky Last?
One of the top questions that I always am asked is "how long does jerky stay good?"
If you follow the steps below, you can expect your homemade jerky to last between 1-2 months after initial airtight packaging. When stored in ziplock type bags in a dark pantry, jerky will last about 1 week; In a refrigerator, jerky will last 1-2 weeks.
How to Make Beef Jerky Last Longer
Let's take a look at what impacts the shelf life of beef jerky and steps you can take to lengthen that time.
1. Lean Meat - Fat is the enemy when it comes to making jerky. Fat will spoil fast and make the jerky go rancid quicker than it would if there wasn't fat. Purchase lean meat and trim all visible fat before drying.
2. Cure - Most commercial producers use a cure consisting of sodium nitrite to extend the life of their jerky to 1 year. This prevents bacteria that could survive in meat that is only dried and not cooked. It is not a requirement to use a cure and most homemade recipes do not include one. This is why you will heat homemade jerky to 160° F, allowing your jerky to stay bacteria free without a cure.
If you want to include a cure in your recipe, a popular cure you can purchase at your local supermarket would be Morton® Tender Quick®. I personally use Prague Powder #1 which I purchase online. This includes Sodium Nitrite which will aid in preservation. When using a cure, you will notice that it gives jerky that red color you often experience from store bought products. It will also alter the taste, giving it that beef jerky flavor everyone is familiar with.
3. Drying - The longer you dry jerky the longer it will last. However, over drying jerky will result in it being extremely chewy. So dry jerky to a desired texture and concentrate on the storage techniques listed below to lengthen your jerky life.
4. Storage (lack of oxygen) - One of the main reasons that commercial beef jerky stays good for so long is because they make sure there is no oxygen in their finished product packaging. This is normally done by shooting nitrogen into their packages to flush out the oxygen before inserting the jerky and sealing. I don't know about you, but I don't have nitrogen laying around the house for jerky making! So here are the best practices you can do when storing your jerky to keep it fresh longer.
- Allow to cool for several hours before storing in air tight containers. -or-
- Storing for a day or two in a paper bag allows the jerky to expel any existing moisture which will help it last longer. This can be done before storing in an air tight container.
- Add food grade oxygen absorbers to your plastic bag or canning jar. Eliminating the oxygen in your package helps prevent bacteria growth, extending the shelf life of your jerky.
- Use vacuum packaging to extract oxygen in order to prevent spoilage. Vacuum sealers can be purchased relatively inexpensive and they work great for storing homemade jerky. If you are a hunter like myself, more than likely you already have one of these in your pantry. I use mine all the time for game meat and fish. It really extends the life of your catch.
- Store in dark, cool places like a pantry. Do not leave jerky in direct sunlight as this can cause condensation within the bag which could result in mold. A little fogging is okay, but if water droplets appear inside your jerky bag; remove jerky and dehydrate longer. Water droplets lets you know that the jerky was NOT dried long enough.
- If wanting to keep jerky for longer than 1-2 months, you can freeze it for up to 6 months. Freezing can alter the taste of jerky and I personally don't recommend it. A better practice is to make smaller batches and eat within a month or two, rather than making a big batch and having to much jerky at once.
How Long Does Beef Jerky Last After Opening?
If you open an airtight bag of jerky, you will want to consume it within 1 week. Even though it can last 2 months in a vacuum sealed container, after opening, you are going to want to eat that jerky! Most commercial jerky bags will state "eat within 3 days after opening".
For more information, visit the USDA Webpage on Jerky and Food Safety.